Tuna, salmon, mackerel, cod: Whatever your preference, eating more seafood may help you stay healthy as you age, new research suggests.
In a study spanning 22 years, researchers found that higher blood levels of the omega-3 fatty acids found in seafood were associated with a better chance of healthy aging.
The study involved more than 2,600 U.S. adults participating in a major study of heart health. Participants averaged 74 years of age at the start of the study.
“Healthy aging” was defined as growing older with good physical and mental function and without major chronic diseases. Only 11 percent of people in the study achieved that goal, noted a team led by Heidi Lai of the School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University in Boston.
The study wasn’t designed to prove cause and effect. However, after accounting for lifestyle and other factors, Lai’s team found that people with the highest blood levels of seafood-derived omega-3 fatty acids had a 24 percent lower risk of aging in an unhealthy way, compared to those with the lowest levels.
The report was published Oct. 17 in the BMJ.
The beneficial effect of omega-3 fatty acids derived from seafood didn’t seem to fade over the more than two decades of the study, the researchers noted in a journal news release.
The findings “support guidelines for increased dietary consumption of fish among older adults,” Lai’s group concluded.
Two experts in aging and nutrition weren’t surprised by the findings.
“Omega-3 fatty acids are now generally recognized as key nutrients in the prevention of pathological conditions associated to the aging process,” noted Melanie Boehmer, a registered dietitian at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.
The nutrients “positively affect risk factors associated with heart disease and have a neuroprotective effect on people suffering from dementia and other age-related mental decline, including Alzheimer’s disease,” Boehmer said. “They also reduce system-wide inflammation and support healthy bones and joints.”
Dr. Maria Torroella Carney directs geriatric medicine at Northwell Health in New Hyde Park, N.Y. She said the new study helps “clarify” a key ingredient in maintaining health with age.
Still, more study is needed to sort out whether “elevated levels of fatty acids [in the blood] are due to diet alone or there is another factor that impacts having higher levels,” Carney said.
In the meantime, Boehmer advised, it can’t hurt to take in more omega-3s.
“Getting them from whole foods, such as wild Alaskan salmon or other oily fish (3.5-ounce serving) at least two times per week is a good start,” Boehmer said. “And if you don’t eat a lot of fatty fish—or fish at all—talk to your friendly neighborhood dietitian about taking an omega-3 supplement.”